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Zombie's Specialty

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Every year when the competition was happening, I came to town and rented a room at the same inn for the duration of the entire thing. I always found spectating a thrill, and the food was second to none since all of the competitors would work at local restaurants for extra cash. I never interacted with any of the Brigadiers-to-be, I was too intimidated. I didn’t really know anything about food besides what I liked and what I didn’t.

Which is why I was surprised when one of them started talking to me one early morning.

The inn I stayed at had complimentary breakfast, and a lot of competitors stayed there. So, each morning was spent trying to grab food before everyone else, and to avoid the chaos, I usually took it right back up to my room and ate it there. Breakfast in bed with extra steps, essentially. I was doing the same thing this morning, grabbing a plate of cheepchi eggs and pancakes, when I was suddenly stopped by someone standing in front of the stairway. He was just leaning against the doorway, reading one of the tomes I saw the two conjoined brothers selling the day before. I vaguely recognize him. I think I slept in for his match when I wanted to see it. “Excuse me,” I spoke up. “I just want to get past you.”

The man looked up from his book and smiled at me. “Why hello there!” He greeted me enthusiastically, taking me aback with an accent I couldn’t quite place. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before. Are you taking part in the competition?”

“Huh? No, I’m just a spectator,” I told him. “Can I get past you?”

“Did you just pop into town? I think I’d remember a face as pretty as yours if I saw it before.”

I felt my cheeks get warm, and I was sure my expression had changed into shock. “No, I’ve been here the entire competition. I just tend to sleep in and miss the early matches.”

“Ah, it’s a shame we haven’t met before today, then. I’m Ziggy, and you would be?”

“______,” I told him.

Right as I told him my name, a large green orc walked past me, accidentally bumping into me in the process. The inn’s hallways were narrow enough without me standing there talking to Ziggy, and when I was bumped, my food slid right off my plate. As it hit the ground, the orc turned around, having seemingly not noticed he even touched me. After he realized though, his eyebrows tilted up and he started apologizing profusely. “I’m so sorry - I thought I could get past you there. I guess I underestimated how small the gap was. You know, I’m sure they’re still serving breakfast, I could go down there and get you -”

“No need to overexert yourself, Thrash,” Ziggy chimed in, cutting him off. “I was just about to offer to cook ______ here a meal, and you’ve just handed me the perfect excuse. You’ve played the part of my own deus ex machina - thanks!”

“You’re… welcome?” Thrash responded, confused. “Well, in that case, I think I’ll just go report to Thorn. She’s got another hunt for me.”

As he walked away, I turned to Ziggy. “What did you say about cooking for me?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. I won’t say no to free food from one of the competitors - he’s got to be a good chef to make it three weeks into the competition without elimination, right?

“I’d like to get some training in at the practice kitchen, and I’ll be needing a judge. Think you could lend a friend a hand?” he asked, reaching a hand out to me.

“I don’t know if I’d be the best judge - I’m not that picky when it comes to cuisine, and I don’t know that much about the semantics of cooking,” I told him honestly. “I’m not sure if you’ll really want me.”

“Why, of course I want you as a judge! Don’t tell me you came just to watch the competition and not try to take part in it?”

“It’s not like the Chairman is about to ask me to be a judge in someone’s round!” I defended myself.

“All the more reason to be a judge now. Best not to waste your chance while you have it,” Ziggy winked at me and took my hand in theirs. “Now come on, I’ll lead the way. You just think about what you want as a theme ingredient.”

How did I get into this? I wondered to myself as I allowed myself to be dragged behind Ziggy. They had a lot more spring in their step than I did, and to top it off, they were taller, so I was always a little bit behind by default, pulled along by Ziggy’s hand. I followed him past the town, past friendly faces who gave us confused looks, and into the forest.

I hadn’t known there was a practice kitchen here before now. It was in a beautiful clearing in the middle of the forest, the sunlight dancing down through the leaves and hitting the floor. Ziggy didn’t let go of my hand even as I reached the middle of the large table. Instead, he took my other hand in his, smiling at me nonchalantly as he leaned over and placed his elbows on the table. “I hope you have that theme ingredient in mind, ______.”

“Uh - Dragon!” I declared, using the first thing that came to mind. The forest ought to have at least one of them, right?

“Dragon it is. Money-back guarantees if you don’t like the dish,” Ziggy told me, pulling back. He pulled a boning knife out of one of his apron’s large pockets.

“But I’m not paying you, am I?” I asked. I was under the impression this was a free meal!

“No, sweetheart, but I’ll still give you something in return if you don’t like the dish. Even if what you get in return is another dish until I find something you like.”

Sweetheart? I felt my face flush again at the pet name. “Alright, I’ll agree to that. I suppose I should be timing you?”

“Put six minutes on the clock, and I’ll bring you back something delicious,” Ziggy gestured to a convenient timer in the middle of the large oak table. I twisted it, and the second I let go of the knob, Ziggy was off. I couldn’t help but watch him as he left, and that’s when I noticed something else.

He was raising the undead to help him.

Sure enough, skeletons, bats, and imps raised from the ground and started helping him not only fight but gather the ingredients and bring them back to the kitchen. This guy is a necromancer?! Is that even legal in the kitchen?! There has to be a real safety concern behind that!

I stared in disbelief as Ziggy slid and skipped about, cooking like normal, like there weren’t literal skeletons beside him helping him cook. At the very least, all of his undead helpers were wearing gloves, but I still couldn’t help but squirm. Soon, the timer buzzed, and Ziggy placed the dish in front of me right on time. “Here we are,” he smiled at me as he set them down. “A specialty of mine - Hearty Chili!”

“Are you a necromancer?” I asked, not waiting for a second or asking about the dish. “Isn’t that kind of magic, well…”

“Evil?” Ziggy raised an eyebrow and laughed. “It gets a bad name. Besides, I do have standards. I make everyone wear gloves.”

“I don’t see you wearing gloves,” I noted. Although I guess he’s not dead -

“Seeing through me, are you?” Ziggy laughed. “I keep up appearances for a lich - it’s not like I cook without a glamor on this body. I’m completely safe, I assure you.”

“Wait - you’re a necromancer and a lich?!” I asked in shock. “Is that sanitary for this line of work?!”

“Why does everyone ask me that? Just because I happen to be a lich, doesn’t mean I don’t deserve a chance to be a chef. I’d like to prove that necromancy is just as valid as cooking magic as anything else. Won’t you give it a chance?”

I looked back at the dish in front of me. It looked and smelt divine - and dragon was one of my favorite foods. Plus, Ziggy’s presentation was nothing to turn away from - it was in a white mug decorated with pink hearts, with a heart decorating the top that looked like it was made with a caranha wing. What’s the worst that can happen? If the Brigade rules his cooking fine, it can’t be dangerous. Just a little unordinary. Plus, with Ziggy staring at me hopefully with a smile on his face, I didn’t want to say no. “Alright,” I reached for the spoon.

Right before I grabbed the spoon, Ziggy grabbed it and scooped a generous amount of chili with it, and I saw the pieces of dragon heart that were causing the fantastic smell more clearly in the dish. “Allow me,” he offered, holding the spoon near my mouth.

“Do you flirt with all of your judges?” I asked, tilting my head.

“Only the ones I find attractive - so this is my first time. Am I swaying you at all?”

Maybe a little, I thought, keeping it to myself as I leaned forward and precariously took a bite. I was taken aback by the strong flavor, and I couldn’t help but smile. “This is really good!” I told him after I swallowed, putting my hand on his to take the spoon from him. “Two hundred points to the lich.”

“Two hundred points? How generous,” he chuckled. “I guess all my flirting paid off.”

“I’ll make it four hundred if I can get a kiss from the chef,” I smiled and winked at him. It can’t hurt to have a little fun while I’m here - while in Brigade Town, right?

“I’ll take that deal,” Ziggy leaned forward without hesitation and planted a deep kiss on my lips. I had expected something quick, but I didn’t mind, rolling with it and resting my arms on their shoulders, my hands meeting each other behind their neck.

From that day on, Ziggy cooked for me every morning and night in the practice kitchen. I grew to really love Haunt Cuisine.